Scientists have discredited claims that listening to classical music enhances intelligence, yet this so-called "Mozart Effect" has actually exploded in popularity over the years. So says Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior who has systematically tracked the evolution of this scientific legend. What's more, Heath and his colleague, Swiss psychologist Adrian Bangerter, found that the Mozart Effect received the most newspaper mentions in those U.S. states with the weakest educational systems — giving tentative support to the previously untested notion that rumors and legends grow in response to public anxiety.
"When we traced the Mozart Effect back to the source [the 1993 Nature journal report titled 'Music and Spatial Task Performance', we found this idea achieved astounding success," says Heath. The researchers found far more newspaper articles about that study than about any other Nature report published around the same time. And as the finding spread through lay culture over the years, it got watered down and grossly distorted. "People were less and less likely to talk about the Mozart Effect in the context of college students who were the participants in the original study, and they were more likely to talk about it with respect to babies — even though there's no scientific research linking music and intelligence in infants," says Heath, who analyzed hundreds of relevant newspaper articles published between 1993 and 2001.
Not only had babies never been studied, but the original 1993 experiment had found only a modest and temporary IQ increase in college students performing a specific kind of task while listening to a Mozart sonata. And even that finding was proved suspect after a 1999 review showed that over a dozen subsequent studies failed to verify the 1993 result. While many newspapers did report this blow to the Mozart Effect, the legend continued to spread — overgeneralizations and all. For example, Heath cites a 2001 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that refers to "numerous studies on the Mozart Effect and how it helps elementary students, high school students, and even infants increase mental performance." In truth, none of these groups had been studied, says Heath.
So why did the Mozart Effect take such a powerful hold in popular culture, particularly in reference to babies and children? Heath and Bangerter surmised that the purported effect tapped into a particularly American anxiety about early childhood education. (Bangerter, who was doing research in Stanford's psychology department during the study, had been struck by Americans' obsession with their kids' education. For example, he saw that a preschool near the Stanford campus had the purposeful name "Knowledge Beginnings," whereas a preschool near a university in Switzerland was called "Vanilla-Strawberry." The latter made no lofty claims about its educational goals.) Concern about education was so great, in fact, that several U.S. states actually passed laws requiring state-subsidized childcare centers to play classical music or giving all new mothers a classical music CD in the hospital.
To test their hypothesis that the legend of the Mozart Effect grew in response to anxiety about children's education, Heath and Bangerter compared different U.S. states' levels of media interest in the Mozart Effect with each state's educational problems (as measured by test scores and teacher salaries). Sure enough, they found that in states with the most problematic educational systems (such as Georgia and Florida), newspapers gave the most coverage to the Mozart Effect.
"Problems attract solutions," explains Heath, and people grappling with complex problems tend to grasp for solutions, even ones that aren't necessarily credible. "They can be highly distorted, bogus things like the Mozart Effect," says Heath, adding that similar patterns occur in our culture's fixation on fad diets and facile business frameworks.
Heath's analysis also found that spikes in media interest generally corresponded to events outside of science-particularly state legislation and two pop psychology books, The Mozart Effect and The Mozart Effect for Children.
Lest Heath's own findings spawn overgeneralizations, he's quick to point out that the Mozart Effect is a particular type of legend. "The Mozart Effect points out a solution, whereas urban legends point out a problem." The prevailing but untested thinking about urban legends holds that they spread by tapping into public anxiety. But Heath says that even if the Mozart Effect succeeded by suggesting a solution to an anxiety, it's not clear why legends that create anxiety would spread. Why, for example, would people circulate stories about rat meat in KFC meals or about the perils of flashing your headlights at motorists driving without their lights on. "I'm still skeptical about the anxiety approach to urban legends," he cautions.
The anxiety explanation seems simple and convenient on the surface, but as the history of the Mozart Effect shows, a convenient answer may well be completely false. As Heath puts it, "We've got to look for a realistic way out instead of an easy way out."